Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One

Singing Christmas CarolsIf you’re facing the holiday season with a heavy heart over the dreaded thought of losing of a loved one, I hope this post comforts you: Bruce and Lisa have been near and dear to us ever since those infamously brutal days of medical residency when Alan, Bruce, and Rick slogged it out as warriors in the cause of trying to save lives without losing their own. In Alan’s group of 13 interns who began the program in 1979, he and I were the only couple who started and ended married, but Bruce and Lisa (and Rick and Linda) were 2 couples who fell in love and married during those trying days—quite a feat and test of patience—and they’ve stayed together as shining lights of Christian faith and love ever since. In fact, the 3 guys started a practice together in Ann Arbor.

Singing Together We all used to get together once a month for dinner, to sing, and to pray for our patients. (This is Aaron leaning on Bruce’s shoulder. You can see how at home our kids were with these two wonderful couples!) 3 Moms and 3 Babies  The year Alan and I had our fifth baby (Daniel), both of these dear couples had their first baby…all boys! (Left: Karl; Middle: Daniel; Right: Ricky Jr.) 🙂 Bruce playing recorder  We had so much fun together! Bruce was like the Pied Piper to our kids, Lisa with Karland Lisa was always a calm, nurturing, gentle influence. Dan and Karl

Those were the “good, old days”…hard days but happy days. It was a sad day when we all parted ways. Alan and I made a “roots” move north; Bruce and Lisa moved to Wisconsin, where Bruce became an E.R. doctor; Rick became a pathologist in MI. But, because we’d developed such deep bonds of affection, we continued to keep in touch through Christmas letters and occasional visits. Bruce and LisaTime flies! In what seemed like no time at all, 30 years passed. Not too long ago, Lisa was diagnosed with colon cancer, and Bruce took her on a tour to visit all her friends and family while she was still well enough to enjoy/handle travel. That was one precious but bittersweet visit! I kept up with Lisa until just this past month, when she lost her strength for outside communication. Now we keep tabs for prayer and encouragement through Bruce.

In searching for materials to comfort a friend in the loss of her father as well as cope with my own impending loss of a Lisa, I found a wonderful little book by Cecil Murphy and Gary Roe, called Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One. (Just checked Amazon; you can get a used copy for a dollar or a new one for $5.) I wanted to tell you “everything” I learned, but there’s too much. A few of the most poignant lessons for me were:

*Prepare yourself. Our culture denies death, but we need to embrace it, educate ourselves, and open ourselves up to deal with the pain, both individually and with our loved one. That front-loads the stress, but long term it’s very helpful.

*Make amends. “It’s not what you did, but what you do next.” Ask for forgiveness as needed and be open to receiving your loved one’s requests for forgiveness, but don’t confront them. Focus on the good times. Learn to forgive, even if your loved one has never experienced deep repentance for injuries! We will never understand all the ways in which we’ve hurt others and God, and yet God is merciful and loves us. May we pass forward his great kindnesses in our lives.

*Take care of yourself in the midst of your care giving. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (See Matthew 22:37-39, emphasis mine).  You cannot freely love others unless you have made peace with God and with yourself.  Learn about your limits. Your loved one depends on you, so don’t lose your own health. Think in terms of how to keep both of you afloat physically and emotionally.

*Be fully present with your loved one. Don’t avoid pain. Cry with them. Pray with them. Remember happy times together. Affirm them. Thank them. Tell them often that you love them, and what you love about them. Enjoy each day as much as you can, living in the present. Laugh with them. Focus on the positives, and look hopefully to the future (if you both are resting in Christ for your salvation and feel sure of heaven).

*Ask them to impart a blessing to you. They may know things about life that you need to learn. Cec offers 4 questions we can ask to start a conversation, but think about other questions to ask when you visit too. Here is Cec’s list:
1. What’s one thing you’d like me to remember?
2. What makes a successful life?
3. What 1 or 2 good things can you pass on about raising kids?
4. What are the biggest lessons I need to learn in life?

*Ask them to tell you their life story, beginning with childhood. This review can be a blessing to both of you, but it can also stir up problems that may need to be addressed. If you have a close relationship and are sensitive, you might be able to help the dying person makes amends with others or make sure they’re able to die with no regrets or unfinished business. A clear conscience and peace are critically important.

*When the time comes, most people need “permission” to die…they need to know that you will be okay without them. Center on their need to let go rather on your need to keep them. Let them know that God will take care of you (or ask God to take care of you if you haven’t, so that it is true). If they don’t have peace about dying, and you’re a believer, share the gospel with them. God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (1 Peter 3:9).

The book has some synoptic lists on “Do’s and Don’ts to Prepare Yourself,”  “Comfort for Yourself and Your Family,” and how to cope with your grief following the death of your loved one with a list of resources to help the grieving heart, such as Gary Roe’s practical and inspirational website: “Good Grief” (

So, if you’re struggling with the threat of impending death during this holiday season when you wish you could just be thinking about the joy of Jesus’ birth, consider giving yourself a gift: Face the loss of your loved one and learn how to say goodbye.

Let me know how I can pray for you, and I will.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

2 responses to “Saying Goodbye: Facing the Loss of a Loved One

  1. Thank you Kathy. My sister-in-law has been diagnosed with pancreas cancer and is fighting hard for her life. She is very brave, but it is hard to watch.

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